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Film Review

Captain Phillips: A Victim Hero and a Political Fable

November 21st 2013

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Captain Phillips. Director: Paul Greenglass. Starring: Tom Hanks

Somebody had to write it, of course. In the event it turned out to be Christopher Orr of the Atlantic, though any number of critics these days might have done the same. Here’s the lead of Mr Orr’s piece about Captain Phillips, Paul Greengrass’s true-life tale of piracy in the treacherous waters of the Arabian Sea off the coast of Somalia in 2009:

A tiny cohort of poorly organized insurgents, in a feat of terrible miscalculation, hijack an enterprise vastly larger than themselves, demanding a large and implausible ransom. Outnumbered and surrounded, they soon begin bickering with one another, their plans changing by the hour. Although repeatedly offered an out if they will simply release their hostage, they find themselves too deeply wedded to the self-destructive course they’ve charted. "I came too far," their leader explains. "I can’t give up." Is Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips the most inadvertently resonant movie of the year?

Oh, I get it. He means that those Wascally Wepublicans who are (or were when the piece appeared) brutalizing and holding hostage President Obama and his pathetic band of defenseless Democrats are just like the Somali pirates in Mr Greengrass’s film — except that the film feels a great deal more sympathy toward the gun-toting pirates than Mr Orr or his fellow partisans have shown any signs of toward the Republicans or tea-partiers. Here’s yet more redundant proof that movie criticism and left-wing idiocy go together like a horse and carriage. Or a vast container ship and piracy. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Author Edwin Black Reveals Latest Terrorism Funding at IBC-TV Special Event at Beverly Hills City Council

November 20th 2013

Edwin Black

New York Times bestselling author Edwin Black will be the featured speaker at the IBC-TV Special Event being hosted in the Beverly Hills City Council Chambers by the Beverly Hills Forum November 25, 2013. He will reveal new information from his latest investigative book, Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terror in Israel. The IBC-TV Special Event accompanies a special 10-part broadcast series on Financing the Flames produced as part of the Edwin Black Show on the IBC-TV network.

Buy Financing the Flames
Learn More About Financing the Flames
see The Edwin Black Show

Financing the Flames pulls the cover off the robust use of US tax-exempt, tax-subsidized, and public monies to foment agitation, systematically destabilize the Israel Defense Forces, and finance terrorists in Israel. In a far-flung investigation in the United States, Israel, and the West Bank, human-rights investigative reporter Edwin Black documents that it is actually the highly politicized human rights organizations and NGOs themselves—all American taxpayer supported—which are financing the flames that make peace in Israel difficult if not impossible.

Black spotlights key charitable organizations such as the Ford Foundation, George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, the New Israel Fund, and many others, as well as American taxpayers as a group. Instead of promoting peace and reconciliation between Arabs and Israelis, he writes, a variety of taxpayer-subsidized organizations have funded a culture where peace does not pay, but warfare and confrontation do.

Financing the Flames has received a cascade of accolades since it was unleashed upon the public last month. Rick Halperin director of Southern Methodist University Embrey Human Rights Program and former chairman of the board of Amnesty International USA called the book “a jolt.” Halperin wrote, “Most people should and will be appalled to read the revelations in Financing the Flames. It is a jolt!” Read more ..

Book Review

What Price Gilad?

November 20th 2013

Gilad Shalit after Release

Gershon Baskin. The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas. The Toby Press, 2013. 283 pages.

It all began in June 2006 when a nineteen year old Israeli army conscript, Gilad Schalit, was kidnapped by Hamas loyalists -- “rogue groups” Gershon Baskin calls them -- in the continuing tit-for-tat violence between Israeli occupiers and occupied Palestinians. The Israelis have imprisoned thousands of Palestinians, some of whom committed heinous crimes and many others whose nonviolent challenges to their subjugators ended up in a prison cell, much to the dismay of their families and supporters. Schalit, nineteen, was only one Israeli Jew, but in Israel his capture was taken personally. To set the stage, Baskin tells us that one year earlier, his wife’s cousin was murdered in Ramallah by a Hamas member.

Enter Baskin, an American-Israeli, who has spent virtually his entire professional life in Israel working with other peaceniks for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, having co-founded with a Palestinian ally a public-policy think tank and where he now writes a column, “Encountering Peace” in the Jerusalem Post.

When he first heard of Schalit’s abduction he had what can best described as a revelation. He possessed one thing Israel’s spymasters and officials didn’t have, namely extensive contacts with Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, which he had developed over the years in his peace work. Seated on the shores of the Dead Sea in neighboring Jordan, learning of the abduction, he reflected on the kidnapping’s possible consequences, asking himself, “How many innocent Israelis and Palestinians would be killed as a result of this attack?” -- retaliation being the name of the game. Read more ..

Book Review

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide

November 19th 2013

Blood Telegram

In The Blood Telegram, Gary J. Bass, a former journalist who is currently a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, describes the 1971 bloodbath which destroyed East Pakistan and gave birth to the nation of Bangladesh – a series of events which Bass argues culminated in “a forgotten genocide,” overshadowed by events in Vietnam and Cambodia along with the opening of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Bass asserts that the United States must bear responsibility for the Pakistani army’s violent response to calls for autonomy following the electoral victory of Mujib-ur-Rahman in East Pakistan.

The violence, which left at least a quarter million Bengalis dead and millions more refugees, was carried out with weapons supplied by the United States to its Pakistan military ally, while President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger refused to reign in their client General Ayha Muhammad Yahya Khan despite the fact that the U.S. consulate in Dacca provided detailed intelligence to the State Department and White House of the atrocities taking place in East Pakistan.

The chief protagonist of this story is career Foreign Service officer Archer Blood, who as head of the consulate at Dacca sacrificed his career to assure that the true story of the massacre in East Pakistan was communicated to Washington. Nixon and Kissinger were infuriated with the so-called “Blood Telegram,” and the career diplomat was recalled from his post. Bass also reserves praise for former New York Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, who served as Ambassador to India during the crisis and failed to share the animosities of Nixon and Kissinger toward Indian democracy. Read more ..

Book Review

Families and Faith: America and the Faith of Our Fathers

November 18th 2013

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Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down across Generations. Vern L. Bengtson Oxford University Press. 2013.

One of the major findings of Robert Putnam and David Campbell's important 2011 study American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us is the rise of what scholars of religion call "the nones": a rising tide of religiously unaffiliated Americans, which is now in the neighborhood of 20% of the U.S. population. Such a statistic is often cited as an example of how, amid the prominence and evident power of evangelical Christians in U.S. society (who, by the way, tend to see themselves as beleaguered), the nation is becoming increasingly secular. But in Families and Faith, sociologist Vern Bengtson and collaborators Norella Putney and Susan Harris report that the picture is somewhat more complicated. To be sure, they say, there has been significant churn in religious identity since 1970. But there's also been a lot more continuity than you might think.

Families and Faith is a brief distillation of The Longitudinal Study of Generations (LSOG), a 35-year project begun by Bengtson in 1970 drawing on over 2,000 respondents in over 350 multi-generational families. The goal of the study was to analyze patterns of religious transmission, or lack thereof, across four generations. In the broadest sense, what Bengtson found is that about six in ten children kept to the religious tradition of their parents -- more for Mormons and Jews, less for Catholics and mainline Protestants.

You can interpret that as a glass that's a little more than half full or almost half-empty, depending on your predilections. But Bergston leans toward the former, for a number of reasons. One is that many of those who have not maintained faith traditions in any formal sense nevertheless profess loyalty to them and eventually return to them (the so-called prodigals). Another is that non-religious affiliation is itself significantly a matter of generational transmission. Read more ..

Book Review

Extinguishing the Fires of Anti-Israel Agitation

November 17th 2013

Financing the Flames

“Financing the Flames” is very troubling, but then that’s nothing new for an Edwin Black book since all of his works studiously reveal facts and unknown information that shocks and disrupts historical conventions. What is different about this undertaking as compared to his previous treatises is that it deals with contemporary events, events that are literally ripped from today’s headlines. Financing the Flames exposes the greatest threat to Israel’s existence since 1948, but this time the threat may succeed – because it emanates from enemies within Israel and the Jewish world.

These enemies are borne from the almost innate, often misplaced, Jewish sense of responsibility for others (misplaced, since the frequent goal of the others is to destroy Judaism itself).

Over the last decade or so, a question has been repeatedly asked and debated: “Why is Israel so successful on the military battlefield yet so unsuccessful when it comes to winning the public relations war?” This question has been especially puzzling since there are so many Jews working in the news media. The mystery intensifies when one considers the extensive care taken by the Israelis to protect uninvolved civilians and not overreact to provocations, even severe ones.

Usually the answer revolves around the vast sums of money paid by oil-rich Arab nations to anti-Israel PR efforts. Unquestionably, this wealth of funds and the media’s never ending hunger to gobble it up has played a big part in unbalancing the field. However, as it turns out, there is more to the story.

In Financing the Flames, we finally get the real answer to the question, as Edwin Black meticulously details how anti-Israel efforts are being funded by non-Arab nations (such as the United States and Great Britain) and by presumably non-aligned, well-intentioned private donor groups – some Jewish, which are then implemented by misguided Jews and Jewish organizations. In other words, the Jewish gifts for socially-conscious fund raising and media wizardry, if indeed such things exist, are ironically being used against Israel. Read more ..

Jihad in Music

Crooner Sir Tom Jones Condemns Boycotts of Israel by Musicians After Playing Tel Aviv

November 16th 2013


British crooner Sir Tom Jones condemned boycotts of Israel by musicians after playing two sold out shows in Tel Aviv last month, the UK Jewish News reported. “I was in Israel two weeks ago where a lot of singers won’t go (because of the boycott campaign). I don’t agree with that. I think entertainers should entertain. They should go wherever, there shouldn’t be any restrictions. That’s why I went there. I did two shows in Tel Aviv and it was fantastic,” he told the Jewish News.

In August, Israel’s Consul for Public Affairs in New York, Gil Lainer, said the Welsh singer had become “the latest victim of a fringe campaign pushing for a boycott of Israel, which bullies artists and academics from coming to Israel,” and encouraged Israel supporters to contact him via Twitter (@RealSirTomJones) with positive messages. Lainer credited the activism of online supporters of Israel as the reason why “artists like Alicia Keys stood up to online bullying, and had an amazing time in Israel this July in a pair of sold out shows.” Read more ..

Book Review

The Most Important Election of Our Lives

November 11th 2013

Rossevelt's Second Act

Roosevelt's Second Act. Richard Moe. Ox ford University Press. 2013. 392 pp.

Can anything new be written about Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Yes, most certainly.

Ever since I can remember, presidential candidates have called the upcoming vote “the most important election of our lives.” The phrase has become a staple of political rhetoric. In an extraordinary new book, Roosevelt’s Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War, Richard Moe convincingly demonstrated why the contest that elected FDR to a third term might well have been the most important election in American history, rivaling that of 1864.

The author of several books, Moe served as Vice President Walter Mondale’s chief of staff and as a senior advisor to President Jimmy Carter and later served for 17 years as president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Moe’s government experience is a tremendous asset, as the author displays a highly sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the many forces at work behind the curtain in the Roosevelt Administration. He writes with real insight about the key players of the time, and helps the reader to understand the competing forces at play in the political process.

The 1940 campaign is fascinating on many levels, not least the fact that 1940 would be not only the first, but also the last time, due to the 22nd Amendment (proposed in 1947 and ratified in 1951), that a candidate would be nominated for a third term. Moe has chosen a truly unique moment in American history, one that will never be repeated again. Surprisingly, FDR’s decision is the subject of little scholarship.

Woven throughout is how Roosevelt kept one eye on developments overseas in Europe and the other on the 1940 election, and his commitment both to stopping the spread of fascism abroad and preserving his reform programs at home. Neither was a given. In fact, each of FDR’s desires faced tough odds: America did not have the military means to enforce the former, and a slew of conservative opposition among not only Republicans but also among Democrats threatened the legacy of the New Deal. Read more ..

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames from a Mobile Home in Florida

November 4th 2013

Financing the Flames

A regular feature of West Bank confrontation between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians seems to be a corps of intrepid young women that villagers call “internationals.” They specialize in upfront and personal, in-your-face, and often nose-to-nose verbal taunting hoping to provoke a reaction that video cameras can record. If and when soldiers finally do react, these incidents are then uploaded to the Internet to prove “the brutality of the IDF.” These “internationals” often seem to appear out of nowhere at a village flashpoint. Just as suddenly, they melt into the background.

Using false names and seemingly untrackable movements, the skilled and stealthy internationals have managed to inspire and encourage videographed confrontation far beyond their numbers. Who are they? What is the font of their financial wherewithal? Who is financing these flames?

Searching for answers, one night in early May 2013, I traveled to the tiny West Bank town of Deir Itsiya where the internationals quietly maintain a base of operations. The women are known to many in that local Arab community, where they are provided logistical assistance and deferential hospitality. They receive many European guests. When I asked my taxi driver, "Do you know where the house is?" he answered, "Yes, Sheik Haider (neighborhood)." He took me there.

At an elbow in a dusty road, I found their compound behind long, ornate iron fencing. I knocked on all the doors, the ones with knockers and the ones without. No answer. I called out for anyone who was home. A neighbor strolled by to remark. The driver translated: "He said the European girls are not sleeping in town tonight. But he knows how to reach them. I will take you where he said." Read more ..

Book Review

The Rise of an American Reform Movement,

November 4th 2013

The Vegetarian Crusade

The Vegetarian Crusade. Adam D. Shprintzen. U of North Carolina Press. 2013. 336 pp.

When at age 17 I decided not to eat meat or fish my alarmed mother asked our family doctor if I would die. Reassured I would live, I fed stray animals and birds and on occasional Saturdays visited the bookstore of Simon Gould, a Manhattan bookseller who had run for the presidency as a write-in candidate on a ticket called The Vegetarian Party. I doubt he received many votes but he was kind and once gave me a piece of advice. Best to remain a vegetarian for life for humane reasons, the better to resist future pressures to regress into eating meat. Health was important, but secondary to preserving all life.. He also presented  me with a book published in 1892,  Animal Rights, by  Henry Salt, a British  polymath.  Peter Singer, who wrote the indispensable Animal Liberation said it “remains among my most treasured books.”   The word vegetarian itself derives from the Latin “vigitore,” or “giving strength and health” but was more appropriately defined by the long-defunct American Vegetarian Society as  “a diet free of flesh products produced by violence and  suffering.”

Vegetarianism, once derided and ignored is now accepted by millions of Americans,  had its beginnings in Great Britain and  was brought to the United States by the Bible Christian Church. Because it is rarely scrutinized seriously by historians, Adam D. Shprintzen’s illuminating study, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement 1817-1921 (University of North Carolina Press) is more than welcome because it tells its fascinating if often eccentric history in the context of momentous societal changes.

When the British-based Bible Christian Church members immigrated to Philadelphia in 1817 they came with the blessing of its founder William Cowherd, a good-looking Lancashire man and devotee of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish philosopher and theologian who preached the virtues of a meatless diet though there is some doubt that he was always faithful to the ideal. Cowherd remained behind in Britain but was said to have been the only man brave enough to read through the complete works of Swedenborg in Latin. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Taylor Swift Opens Nashville Education Center

November 4th 2013


On November 6, Taylor Swift became only the second person ever to be awarded the Country Music Association’s Pinnacle Award. That honor is given to an artist who’s achieved the highest degree of worldwide success and recognition. The other recipient?  Garth Brooks in 2005. The singer-songwriter recently opened the new Taylor Swift Education Center at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

When Swift was growing up, she took music classes at her school. But when she wanted to take more advanced lessons, her parents were able to provide them for her.

"A lot of my music education happened outside of school," she explained. "It happened because my parents were willing to drive me to countless children’s theater, local theater productions or take me to guitar lessons.” Swift has credited both her wide ranging musical education and being exposed to all kinds of music as a child as important to her development as a songwriter and performer. Read more ..

Book Review

Documented at Last: How The U.S. Finances Confrontation in Israel

November 4th 2013

Financing the Flames

Financing the Flames. Edwin Black. Dialog Press, 2013. 288 pp.

Financing the Flames could not have been written by any journalist other than Edwin Black—and even Black could not have written it 10 years ago. Ten years ago, this attempt would likely have seen him end up as just another casualty in the treacherously dangerous politics of the Middle East. However, Black's well-earned reputation as a tenacious and hard-hitting, but fair and accurate investigative author gave him the unique ability to obtain unprecedented access and cooperation from normally suspicious participants involved in a deadly political war.

At its core, Financing the Flames documents Black's attempt to bring sense to the apparent disconnect between the allegedly documented civil rights abuses by the Israeli Defense Forces on powerless Palestinians, and the Israelis, a people with a history of suffering great hardship, pain, and unspeakable acts at the hands of would-be exterminators. Black also harkens to a favorite exhortation of mine from Exodus 22: "Do not mistreat or oppress a stranger in your midst, for you were strangers in Egypt." In typical Black style, he went straight to the source, talking to the key players on both sides of the conflict, from the highest military authorities to the common factory worker and senior executives from human rights organizations. Black witnessed for himself the regular demonstrations that provide the fodder for many of the allegations, interviewing both Israelis and Palestinians in those conflicts, firsthand. From the finest hotels to the most dangerous bad alleys, Black brings the reader along.

Also typically, Black followed the money.

The result is a compelling and stunning exposé of how American taxpayers are literally financing the flames of confrontation in Israel, with U.S. tax-exempt organizations paying for training, participation, and organizing a dangerous street theater in the Middle East. Not only paying for it, but these “human-rights organizations” are providing the directors, the producers, the scripts, and the marketing campaigns. And yes, some of the actors are Americans and others from the Western world. Black even documents how these dramas become well-scheduled performances. Unfortunately, all the actors do not go out for a drink afterwards. Some are injured. Some die. Read more ..

The Edge of Poetry

Texas Poet Finds Inspiration in Police Work

November 1st 2013

Police Running

Police are not generally known for their genteel manners and skill at creating metaphors.  But many cops, as  police officers are known, have written books influenced by their law enforcement work.  Still, you don't find many award-winning poets among them and not all that many females.  A woman in Houston, Texas has made her way both as a cop and a lyric poet.

Sarah Cortez draws a crowd to hear poems that touch on everything from sex, love and food to dating fellow police officers.

"Your first cop boyfriend, your first handgun.  No one else believed in your calling to wear a badge and police the streets," said Sarah Cortez. Sarah Cortez had her law-enforcement calling 20 years ago.  And she still works in uniform as a part-time reserve officer at the Harris County constable's precinct four office. Her experience as a cop is often reflected in her books of poetry and the anthologies she has edited. Read more ..

The Edge of Diplomacy

Iraqi Dancers in US on First Hip Hop Diplomacy Tour

October 31st 2013

Iraq Election 2010

A group of Iraqi urban dancers is visiting major U.S. cities this month as part of a first-ever Iraqi hip hop diplomacy tour of the United States. The U.S. government-sponsored tour is the culmination of years of training inside Iraq, where the Kurdish and Arab dancers face tougher conditions to develop their skills than their American counterparts.

Husain Simko is one of the six Iraqi breakdancers bringing their interpretation of the American-originated art of hip hop to U.S. audiences. The tour already has taken them to the cities of Dearborn, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and ends in Boston on October 23-24. Twenty-year-old Husain, who is from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Irbil, showed off some impressive moves when the group performed at Washington D.C.'s Dance Place theater on Saturday.
Hip hop beginnings
Husain said he first discovered breakdance from U.S. soldiers stationed in Irbil in 2004.
"One of the soldiers, he was standing on the car - between all of the kids, he calls me, and says, 'come here, and do the wave move,'" he said. "And I was like, how did this [arm] bone go up?  It was something I didn't know about.  So I just went home and practiced and practiced until 2005," said Husain.
Husain joined fellow Kurdish hip hop enthusiast Shalaw in signing up for an Iraqi dance academy launched by U.S. non-profit group American Voices in 2007. Led by executive director John Ferguson, it is the only group coaching Iraq's aspiring hip hop artists. "We put them through a long series of auditions and chose six of the best and most dedicated and most talented dancers to participate in this tour to the United States," said Ferguson.  "It's the very first time any of them have been to America, and the very first time they've participated in a full-length hip hop dance show." Read more ..

Book Review

A Comprehensive Surveys of Films About War in the Post-Vietnam Era

October 28th 2013

American War Cinema & Media Scince Vietnam

American War Cinema and Media Since Vietnam. Patrica Keeton and Peter Scheckner. Palgrave Macmillian. 2013. 276 pp.

In this first comprehensive survey of films about war in the post-Vietnam era, Patricia Keeton and Peter Scheckner identify a significant shift in Hollywood away from the celebration of military prowess and pseudo-democratic values.  No longer do films simply embrace the familiar combat stories of the “band of brothers” triumphing against arrogant and authoritarian enemies. American cinema instead has begun to treat war more critically, incorporating the perspectives of the poor and marginalized, who in the era of the volunteer army increasingly fight our wars of choice.  Since the strategic, political and social catastrophe of Vietnam, Keeton and Scheckner tell us, “American war cinema has changed, possibly forever, from mindless flag waving to juggling and making sense of a complex patchwork of social and political contradictions.”

Yet, as the authors also argue, Hollywood has hardly taken a radical left turn, especially when it comes to connecting foreign policy failures to the structural inequities of American empire building.  Although it has become “nearly impossible…not to see the worker behind the warrior” in American film narratives, Hollywood’s class perspective is still rather limited. No surprise.  Little has changed in the relationships of power and authority that, on the one hand, send working-class Americans to fight overseas and, on the other, control the production and distribution of the war films that show that fighting to the rest of us.

At best, contemporary films merely displace “class tensions and doubts about contemporary wars” onto stories of past conflicts or into futuristic narratives of interstellar strife.  Thus, Steven Spielberg can give a “nod to the worker behind the warrior” in a World War II flick like Saving Private Ryan (1998), but such class identities largely would be avoided in films about contemporary conflicts such as the war in Iraq.  Or James Cameron can pay tribute in Avatar (2009) to anti-imperialist rebellion, so long as it is by the inhabitants of a moon light-years distant.  Moreover, when Hollywood cinema of the post-Vietnam era occasionally questions the motives and competence of specific American foreign policies, as do films like The Green Zone (Paul Greengrass, 2010) and Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999), it generally has avoided addressing the corporate empire-building that the authors argue lies behind the United States’ seemingly endless drive toward war.  Hollywood can indeed tolerate some level of dissent about the “military-industrial complex,” however it cannot see through mere political malfeasance (lying to the public about WMDs for instance) to the larger questions of who rules that system and why they need ordinary Americans to fight and die for it. Read more ..

Book Review

The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

October 25th 2013


Zealot. Reza Aslan. Random House. 336 pp.

I'm one of those people who was prompted to read this book after I saw, live, the author's interview on FOX News where his interlocutor insinuated that Aslan, as a Muslim, had ulterior motives in writing about Christianity other than that of a historian. (The anti-intellectual subtext was as strong as the implied invitation to religious bigotry). The exchange, which went viral, launched Zealot onto the New York Times bestseller list, something unlikely to have happened without out it, notwithstanding Aslan's previous well regarded book on Islam, No God but God. So it is that FOX demonstrates its perverse market power.

In terms of the book's argument, Zealot rests on a syllogism that goes something like this:

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a time and place of extraordinary political instability stemming from the seething religious and social tensions in Jewish Palestine.

After the death of Jesus, these tensions, which had periodically erupted into insurrection under Roman rule, finally provoked an overwhelming military response in 70 CE that discredited militant Judaism in the eyes of followers and outsiders alike.

Jesus therefore had to be sanded down for mass consumption, his sharp political edges softened as part of a larger process of transforming him from a Jewish messiah to a universal savior.

As Aslan acknowledges, calling Jesus a Zealot (capital Z) is anachronistic, a little like titling a biography of Abigail Adams Feminist. The Zealots as a discrete political faction only arose after the death of Jesus, and while there were people with that designation in his lifetime (lower-case z), he was not commonly associated with them. Aslan, however, feels that there's enough evidence of militancy in the gospels to suggest his affinity for them. Read more ..

Theater on the Edge

Broadway Revives Tennessee Williams' 'Glass Menagerie'

October 22nd 2013

Off Broadway

Theater audiences first met the dysfunctional Wingfield family nearly 70 years ago in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

His tale of heartbreak and faded dreams, inspired partly by the playwright's own family dynamics, has resonated powerfully with audiences through the decades.

The latest revival of this classic is on Broadway, where audiences enter the Booth Theater to find a simple, but striking vision.

Onstage, there’s the scantest representation of a cramped apartment, but there are no walls, just a sofa, dining room table and a couple of other pieces of furniture, with a long tilted fire escape reaching upward. Other than that, everything’s black. The whole set seems to be floating in a void.  Read more ..

Book Review

Adventures in the Jungles of Crime, Politics, and Journalism

October 18th 2013

Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer

Confessions of Guerrilla Writer. Dan E. Moldea. Moldea.com. 2013. 700 pp.

After following Dan Moldea’s career for over thirty years I have concluded he is one of America's best investigative reporters. That judgment has not diminished after reading his memoirs Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer.

Throughout his books the old maxim, Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall is clearly evident. A specialist on organized-crime investigations since 1974, he has widened his brief to cover everything from Mafia hit men to political scandal. Working out of Washington DC, but at times living in cities across America during his periods of research, Moldea was on first name basis with beat cops and organized crime members, from corporate leaders to community activists. For his troubles he has escaped being killed six times.

Moldea’s highly acclaimed works investigating the power of the mafia include The Hoffa Wars: Teamsters, Rebels, Politicians and the Mob (1978), Dark Victory: Ronald Reagan, MCA, and the Mob (1986) and Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football (1989).

Moldea also took it upon himself to investigate crimes which were either unsolved or the investigations created numerous unanswered questions. The resulting published works of these cases include The Killing of Robert F. Kennedy: An Investigation of Motive, Means, and Opportunity (1995); Evidence Dismissed: The Inside Story of the Police Investigation of O.J. Simpson (with Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter, 1997); and A Washington Tragedy: How the Death of Vincent Foster Ignited a Political Firestorm (1998).

For his reporting Moldea has won acclaim from numerous newspapers and magazines including Newsweek and the New York Times. And for good reason. Some of his writing has altered history especially his work on the disappearance of Teamster Boss Jimmy Hoffa, the RFK assassination and the alleged ‘murder’ of Clinton White House aide Vince Foster. Read more ..

The Edge of Life

In Valerie Plame's 'Blowback,' Reality Grittier than Fiction

October 17th 2013

Nuclear Bomb MK17

The 2010 drama "Fair Game," starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, catapulted the 2003 leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame onto the silver screen.

Plame's life took an unexpected turn after having her cover blown by Bush administration officials, shortly after her husband, former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson, refuted government claims that Iraq's Saddam Hussein was trying to buy enriched uranium from Niger.

Ten years after the scandal, Plame has returned to the world of espionage — this time as a novelist.

In a pop-cultural medium where female agents are often stereotyped as femme fatales, Plame says Vanessa Pierson, the main character of her new novel, "Blowback," is a woman trying to balance personal life with career, very much like herself. “They are either over sexualized, or [there is] heavy reliance on physicality, or they are victims," says Plame. "Or basically I think of them as paper dolls.” Read more ..

America and Iran

Art Forgery Complicates U.S. Relations with Iran

October 15th 2013

When Iran's President Hassan Rohani came home from his charm offensive in New York last month, he arrived bearing a "special gift" from the United States.

But any resulting goodwill may be short-lived, with art experts now saying the 2,700-year-old Persian artifact that was returned to the Iranian people is a fake. The piece, a silver chalice in the shape of a winged griffin, was thought to have originated from the Kalmakarra cave in western Iran and was estimated to be worth about $1 million.

U.S. Customs officials seized the artifact from an Iranian art dealer who was attempting to smuggle it into the country in 2003. The griffin sat in storage in a New York warehouse for more than a decade until Rohani's first presidential trip to the United Nations in September provided an opportunity for the United States to hand it over to Rohani's delegation. Read more ..

Book Review

Getting an Education is a Serious Quest

October 12th 2013

The Smartest Kids in the World

The Smartest Kids in the World. Amanda Ripley. Simon & Schuster. 2013. 320 pp.

History is not destiny: this is the message of journalist Amanda Ripley in her foray into secondary education. We all know that the United States has been struggling comparatively in international rankings of academic performance as measured by standardized tests -- and has been for some time. Most of us are also aware that the reigning educational superpowers are Finland and South Korea. We tend to assume the reasons for a nation's place in the academic world are relatively static: material prosperity, cultural values, ethnic homogeneity (or lack thereof). But, Ripley argues, global performance has in fact been quite fluid. South Korea and Finland were educational backwaters until relatively recently -- as was Poland until even more recently. But, showing more confidence in the efficacy of government than Americans have been able to do, each of these nations has taken proactive steps that have made a difference (even as other nations, among them Italy and Norway, have slipped, for some of the same reasons the U.S. has lagged).

Ripley rests her case on two foundations. The first is empirical: her standard of measurement is the Program for International Assessment Exam (PISA), a standardized test developed at the turn of this century by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an NGO based in Paris. Though PISA is subject to the same skepticism and limits of many standardized tests, it is more analytical and real-world based than most, particularly those administered in the United States. But the bulk of Ripley's analysis is anecdotal: she follows three American students as they journey to rural Finland, urban South Korea, and western Poland, contextualizing accounts of their experiences with thick descriptions of the political, social, and cultural milieu in each. Read more ..

Broken Government

Comics Seize on Government Shutdown to Mock Washington

October 11th 2013

Scene from Chaplin

U.S. comedians on late night TV love to make fun of American politicians, whose feuds often paralyze national decision-making. When the disputes led to the federal government's shutdown this week, the jokes went into overdrive.

The government shutdown has given some of America's most popular TV comedians new ammunition against one of their favorite targets: Republicans.

In a YouTube clip posted by Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the host pounces on Republican lawmaker Todd Rokita for opposing President Obama's health care law. "I just want to help the American people get by and through what is one of the most insidious laws ever created by man. And that is Obamacare," said Rokita in the clip.

"Not just one of the most insidious laws ever created by America, which has Jim Crow and slavery on its resume of laws, but by man - putting Obamacare up with the Nuremberg laws, the Spanish inquisition and 'prima nocta' - the medieval law where on your wedding night the king gets to sleep with your wife," ridiculed Stewart. Read more ..

The Battle for Syria

As War Rages in Syria, Efforts are Made to Save Culture

October 10th 2013

Bomb Damage

As world leaders at the United Nations try to resolve Syria's civil war, a little further uptown international preservationists came together at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in a bid to protect Syrian culture.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art draws millions of people each year to see its unparalleled collections, but on Tuesday art enthusiasts turned into activists pleading for the protection of Syria's historical artifacts.

“There should not be a choice between saving lives and saving heritage,” said Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO. More than two years of fighting in Syria has left more than 100,000 people dead. The violence has also left Syrians powerless to prevent the destruction of some of their most ancient and cherished sites. Read more ..

Book Review

A Fateful Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII

October 6th 2013

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist. Jack El-Hai. Public Affairs. 2013. 304 pp.

Since the 1930s scholars, scientists, journalists and ordinary folk have wondered why the Nazis could have committed so many ghastly crimes against innocent people and children. At times a few helpful insights arise from the killers themselves. One that comes to mind emerges from Gitta Sereny’s mesmerizing interviews with Franz Stangl, the Treblinka and Sobibor commandant, in her 1974 book Into That Darkness. Stangl was responsible for 900,000 deaths. Sereny came away thinking of him as a run of the mill bureaucratic careerist who saw victims as “cargo,” while doing personally fulfilling work that brought him prestige and promotions. After Germany’s defeat he escaped to Brazil where he was caught in 1967, extradited to West Germany, given a life sentence, and finally died of a heart attack in 19i71.

More recently, Thomas Harding’s impressive Hanns and Rudolf deals withAuschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess [spelled Hoss with an umlaut in German]. When tried for his crimes he told the court that he and others like him were not merely following orders, as most captured Nazis claimed, but instead their initiative was highly valued by their superiors and, he chillingly continued, he and his colleagues took great pride in their work. He was hung on the grounds of Auschwitz.

Jack El-Hai, who wrote the well-received The Lobotomist, offers yet another perspective in this forceful and absorbing book, The Nazi and The Psychiatrist: Hermann Goring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fateful Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (PublicAffairs).

To find out if fifty-two elite imprisoned Nazi prisoners were fit for trial as war criminals, the U.S. Army assigned Capt. Douglas M. Kelley, a psychiatrist, to examine the prisoners, a posting he came to view as an extraordinary gift as he developed professional relationships with a few, but especially with Hermann Goering [spelled Goring with an umlaut in German], Reichmarschall, Luftwaffe chief and number three in Hitler’s circle. Among the more prominent Nazis held were Hans Frank, governor-general of Poland; Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy Fuhrer who had flown to England in May 1941 in a quixotic effort to being “peace” between the two nations; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, SS; Robert Ley, who ran labor affair; Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister; Julius Streicher, editor of the pornographic anti-Semitic newspaper Der Sturmer; Arthur Rosenberg, the party’s racial “philosopher”; Generals Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel; and Wilhelm Frick, Goebbels’ man. Read more ..

Flim Review

'Gravity' Showcases Harsh Beauty of Space

October 5th 2013


Gravity. Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Starring: Sandra Bulock, George Clooney. Length 91 Min.

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is a psychological drama with stunning visuals. After a space mission goes awry, scientist Ryan Stone drifts into the cold black void, her chances of returning to earth are bleak. A simple story of loss and survival, Gravity unravels hundreds of miles above the earth while the film’s Hubble-like imagery reveals both the beauty and the harshness of deep space.

In the film, the astronauts are warned of debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. Senior astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, warns mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone of the danger. But Ryan, played by Sandra Bullock, is on her first mission and doesn't see the danger until it is too late.Kowalski attempts to retrieve the drifting astronaut. 

Director Alfonso Cuaron creates a visceral 3D experience of a space mission disaster, where the romantic quiet void turns terrifying and astronauts literally spin out of control. Cuaron wanted to make the intricately technical images as accurate as possible.

"With Emmanuel Lubezki, chief cinematographer, the attempt was to do something that look like an IMAX documentary," Cuaron said. "Also we wanted to do something that honors the laws of physics in space in terms of the microgravity and the no resistance."

The actors also had to deal with the laws of physics, especially Bullock, who almost single handedly carries the movie. "Everything you see, we physically shot, even if it was in tiny pieces to string together," Bullock said. She said evoking the emotions of a lost woman inside a space suit was even more difficult. "You have to have that inner emotional life going at all times," she said. "If it is not alive and it is not there, you can see it on the eyes."  Read more ..

American Jewry on Edge

A Pew Study Suggests Jewish Community May be Dwindling and a Show that Suggests It Still Lives

October 4th 2013

Soul Doctor - Carlebach

Even as The New York Times reported on a new survey showing once again that American Jews are disassociating from Judaism at a rapid pace, a Broadway musical was celebrating the life of a man who knew how to reach out to the unaffiliated and help them find their way back. The performance ended with an audience of about 900 people all singing Am Yisrael Chai with great glee.

The NYTimes article was based on a new Pew Research Center survey, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” that sought to understand everything of consequence about American Jewish life, from birthrate trends, to core beliefs, to religious affiliations, to cultural identity. The survey’s results were alarming, but by no means surprising. Its principal finding — that there is a disquietingly large rate of Jews who are growing up in America more assimilated and less affiliated, with many professing no belief at all — merely confirms trends we have been seeing for over three decades. There are few exceptions to the trend, and every stream of Judaism appears to share its impact. Read more ..

The Music Edge

Hip Hop Meets Southeast Asia Poetry in US Midwest

October 3rd 2013

Corn stalk

What happens when hip-hop meets an ancient Southeast Asian poetry tradition in the American Midwest? Answer: an unusual collaboration between a young rapper and his grandmother.

The American immigrant story usually follows some basic contours. The first generation holds on tight to their old world traditions. Their children try as hard as they possibly can to become “American.” Then in the third generation, the grandchildren often turn back to learn from their grandparents’ culture.

At an outdoor farmer’s market in St. Paul, Minnesota, an elderly woman chants in the dialect of the Hmong people of Laos.  She’s wearing a bright purple turban, a black dress with colorful appliques, a bright, shiny necklace and wrap-around sunglasses.  Next to her is a young man, dressed in black with a baseball cap and jacket. Read more ..

Book Review

The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

October 1st 2013


Dreadful. David Margolick. Other Press. 2013. 400 pp.

If one asks male queers today who wrote the first serious modern American novel that was explicitly gay, nine out of 10 would answer Gore Vidal, for his 1948 book “The City and the Pillar.” But they’d be wrong.

That distinction belongs to John Horne Burns, whose 1947 “The Gallery,” based on his wartime service in North Africa and Italy, garnered almost universal rave reviews, becoming a bestseller that immediately went through 12 printings. The novel nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for its hitherto unknown 31-year-old author, who became a literary celebrity overnight.

Burns’ portrait was featured on the cover of the influential Saturday Review of Literature as “the best war novelist of 1947,” and he was the first author to be praised simultaneously by Harper’s magazine and Harper’s Bazaar, the latter running a “romantic photograph of Burns taken on a gritty New York street” when it listed him as one of 1947’s “Men of the Moment” — along with David Lean, Robert Ryan, Michael Redgrave, and Stephen Spender .John Horne Burns, America’s “best war novelist,” done in by homophobia and his own success.

When Life magazine did a feature that year on the new generation of novelists to come out of World War II and assembled a half dozen of them for a group photograph, Burns was given pride of place at the front, with writers now better remembered than he in the background. Gore Vidal, whose World War II novel ”Williwaw” — a critically acclaimed little jewel about his war service in the Aleutians written when he was only 19 — was published the year before, but he was not included in the Life group of war writers.

Yet today, Burns is almost forgotten, even by cultivated gay writers. The talented Christopher Bram (author of the novel “The Father of Frankenstein,” which became the Oscar-winning gay cult film “Gods and Monsters”), in his otherwise useful book “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America,” published in 2012, accords Burns and “The Gallery” only a dismissive half-sentence. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

For Ray Charles' Birthday a New CD/DVD and a Postage Stamp

September 29th 2013


This week, marking what would have been Ray Charles 83rd birthday, the U.S. Postal Service honored the singer with a new postage stamp. And, there’s also a new CD and DVD collection featuring great Ray Charles performances.

“Ray Charles Forever” opens with a newly remastered version of fellow piano man Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.”  It's one of a dozen tunes on the CD in the collection. President of the Ray Charles Foundation Valerie Ervin says that while fans of the singer and pianist may already have most of this music, there are extras that make this set special. 

“We released some DVD footage, some of that has never been seen or put out in many, many years," she said. "Some of it was shot over in Europe, it was a live show, so we are releasing that to DVD. That will be bonus footage for everyone to enjoy. And a lot of the tracks were remastered, so the sound comes up to today’s quality of sound, if you will.” Read more ..

Film Review

The Family: Hobbesian Family Values

September 28th 2013

The Family

The Family. Director: Luc Besson. Starring: Robert DeNiro, Michelle Pfeiffer. Length: 90 mins.

Luc Besson made a couple of pretty good or at least pretty interesting movies twenty years or so ago. They were La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. You could look them up on Netflix. But, since then, whatever tether to reality those movies still had has disappeared, and M. Besson has become just another Hollywood fantasist — one belonging to the Quentin Tarantino school which regards violence as "the funnest thing you can do at the movies." If you were to point out to either man that, in real life, violence isn’t fun at all, let alone the funnest thing you can do, he would doubtless reply, "So what? What have movies got to do with real life?" There’s no answer to that except that the question is disingenuous. Movies must reflect reality if only to the extent that they avoid it. In the case of Mr. Besson’s latest film, The Family, I wonder if what is reflected isn’t a cultural turn away from Enlightenment principles towards something more primitive.

It stars Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a mafia don and his wife in hiding in the fictional village of Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy — are people in the witness protection program really settled in foreign countries? — along with their two children (Dianna Agron and John D’Leo) after he rats on one or more of his former colleagues. These notably include one Don Luchese (Stan Carp), who directs from his prison cell the indefatigable efforts of DiCicco (Jimmy Palumbo) to see that he and the family get what the Mafia thinks they deserve. Just so that we are left in no doubt about what that is, the film begins with graphic images of DiCicco’s murder of an entire family as they sit at their dinner table — perhaps because he mistakes them for "Fred Blake" (as Mr. DeNiro, the former Giovanni Manzoni, is now known) and his family — before chopping off a finger of the dead paterfamilias for submission to Don Luchese. Read more ..

Book Review

Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA on Kindle

September 27th 2013

Legacy of Ashes

CIA: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Tim Weiner. Anchor. 848 pages.

One way to undermine your credibility in any argument about Latin American politics is to allude to secret operations involving the CIA; do so and you can come off sounding like Dennis Hopper spinning into one of his out of orbit rants in Apocalypse Now. Fortunately, there is a highly credible source of information on the CIA: Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, published in 2007 by New York Times reporter Tim Weiner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the CIA.

The book, now available on Kindle, is a first-rate piece of scholarship. Exhaustively researched, Weiner pored through countless declassified documents and interviewed dozens of former CIA employees, including ten former directors. Powerful and convincing, Legacy of Ashes has earned high praise, including a National Book Award.

The idea for a Central Intelligence Agency grew out of the failings of the previous U.S. spy organization, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the intelligence service widely operational during World War II. The OSS bungled its way through the war, its multiple mistakes leading to the death of many of its often-youthful agents. After the war the OSS was dissolved, but many of the former officers engineered a soft landing for themselves by pushing for the creation of a permanent replacement intelligence service, one that would employ them. President Harry S Truman agreed, and in 1947 signed The National Security Act which founded the CIA. Still, the CIA needed an enemy, and shortly came to find one in the perceived threat of international communism. As the Cold War grew more bitter, the CIA gained added authority and a much larger, and secret, budget. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

Beautiful Brushstrokes Drawn form Data

September 26th 2013

Hagen i Åsgårdstrand by Edvard Munch

A good painter uses simple strokes of a brush to bring texture, contrast and depth to a blank canvas. In comparison, computer programs can have difficulty reproducing the complex and varied forms of brushstrokes, and often require painstaking effort to mimic a brief sweep of paint.

Now, a team of researchers including scientists at Princeton University has developed a program that allows graphic artists to quickly and easily produce realistic brushstrokes on their computers. Called RealBrush, the program combines graphics algorithms with "Big Data" storage and retrieval techniques to allow computer artists to create, bend and shape a wide array of brushstrokes. Besides creating the strokes, the program allows for effects including smudging, smearing and merging of different types of media. Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Where Did Rock 'n' Roll Come From?

September 25th 2013

The Monkees

For nearly 50 years, rock 'n' roll was the most popular music in America and in many other parts of the world. There are some common stories about where rock 'n' roll came from, but a new book argues that many of those stories are myths.

According to Larry Birnbaum, author of the new book "Before Elvis" everyone thinks they know the story of rock 'n’ roll.

“If you ask any -- the average person - where rock 'n' roll came from, they'll say 'It came from the Blues.'  They think it came from the Delta Blues like Robert Johnson or Muddy Waters -- which it did not,” he said.

On songs like "Little Red Rooster," Birnbaum points out that this version of the blues didn’t become part of rock music until the 1960s, when the Rolling Stones embraced Delta Blues.   And what about the other origin story for rock - that it came from rhythm and blues, or R&B?

Birnbaum says that doesn’t tell the whole story either. “When they do these histories of rock 'n' roll, they'll say that rock 'n’ roll came from R&B,” he said. While that’s true, he says the problem is: Historians who say that aren’t looking far enough back. “They don't question where R&B came from," he said. "It's like it fell from the sky or something.” Read more ..

The Edge of Music

All-American Banjo Has African Roots

September 24th 2013

Nashville Symphony

From folk songs like Oh Susannah to its starring role in Bluegrass festivals, the banjo seems to be a quintessentially homegrown American instrument.  However, as Colorado banjo virtuoso Jayme Stone has learned, this five-stringed wonder actually has roots half a world away - in Africa. From Bluegrass festivals to backwoods, Appalachian porches to stadium concerts, a banjo’s twang is pure Americana. Or is it?

While playing a 13th Century Malian praise song in New York’s famed Joe’s Pub, Colorado-based composer and banjo player Jayme Stone says West Africa is the banjo’s true original home.

“It came over on slave ships with slaves in the 1500 and 1600s, and on through the 1700s, and made its way to plantations and farms and places where African Americans were living and working as slaves, and [it] slowly got adapted," he said. All banjos and their ancestors share similarities. Read more ..

Book Review

Portraits of Five Remarkable Lives

September 22nd 2013

Women of the Gulag

Women of the Gulag. Paul R. Gregory. Hoover Institution Press, 2013. 264 pp.

At first glance “Women of the Gulag” is old hat, repeating for the umpteenth time tales of Stalinist Russia’s brutality directed at its own citizens. Familiar to most is the deliberate starvation of a million or more Ukrainians in the early thirties and the fratricidal murders of the Old Bolsheviks and the Red Army’s generals, all well documented by historians, participants and those who suffered.  Thus far, Stalin hasn’t received any revisionist makeover in the English language, at least not yet.

Why, then, another book on Stalinist Russia?  After all, despite the suicide of his wife and death of two sons Stalin left no diaries or letters. But what makes Paul R. Gregory’s “Women of the Gulag” rather unique is that it deals with how the dictator’s dark and irrational  behavior traumatized five Soviet women and their families, all victims, and  based on released Soviet documents and a trove of other material, mainly in the Russian language.  What also makes this book unlike others is that it reveals that, other than the elites he had tried and executed in kangaroo courts, Stalin’s reign terror primarily involved regular, commonplace citizens, victims of what Gregory, who wrote the admirable “Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin,” describes as “mass insanity and hysteria” (viii). In a flat but not uninteresting writing style, Gregory is less concerned with historical and political developments than the tragedies experienced by women.

Arrested women were shipped off to Gulags, punished, sometimes executed, because of what husbands and fathers were accused of doing. “Once in the Gulag, they were subjected to particular kinds of sexual enslavement and violence that male prisoners did not have to endure.” In August 1937, the Politburo ordered “Wives of traitors are to be imprisoned…no less than five to eight years. Children from ages three to fifteen are to be placed in orphanages of the ministry of health in other locations.” Adds Gregory: If family members did not denounce their allegedly seditious husbands, “they were to be arrested themselves and their children taken away.” Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Music of The Blind Boys of Alabama Nears 70th Anniversary

September 21st 2013


We are approaching the 70th anniversary of the first performance by a venerable American musical ensemble, the gospel singing group known as The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Though he’s in his mid-80s now, Clarence Fountain, the last surviving, original member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, can still recall clearly the group’s first time singing in public.

“Way back in -- maybe [19] ‘45, [19]‘46 somewhere along in there - man in New York had a contest and what he did, he said, ‘We gonna have the Blind Boys from Alabama vs. the Blind Boys from Mississippi,” he said.

Fountain and his friends from the Alabama Institute for the Blind lost that contest.  But they didn’t let it get them down.  Instead he says, “We hit the road," he said. "And we never looked back.” The quartet singing tradition in America goes back to the 1890s.  In the African-American community, quartets were based in the church, but you’d also find them in the barber shop and at work.  In the case of the Blind Boys of Alabama, Fountain says their excitement about singing began when someone brought a radio into the Institute. Read more ..

Book Review

JFK's Presidency: The Source of Both Fascination and Frustration

September 20th 2013

JFK's Last Hundred Days

JFK's Last Hundred Days. Thurston Clarke. Penguin Press. 2013. 465 pp.

When Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days was published on July 16, the author may well have channeled Louis XV:  “Apres moi, le deluge.”  Clarke’s book is an early wavelet that presages the literary tsunami now bearing down on us as the fiftieth anniversary of the Kennedy assassination approaches.  With titles such as Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House; The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of the New York Times; We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963; and If Kennedy Lived (described as an “Alternate History”), treatments of John F. Kennedy’s thousand days in the presidency range from the nostalgic to the hypothetical to the straightforwardly historical, with, inevitably, occasional glances at conspiracy theories.

Clarke’s subtitle—The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President—suggests that his book is primarily Hypothetical History, but that is not entirely the case.   The author of a dozen books, including one on Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Clarke does spend a lot of time pushing the argument that in his presidency’s final months  Kennedy was a man who had changed for the better, both personally and politically.  But JFK’s Last Hundred Days is also well grounded in evidence, as Clarke seeks to “solve the most tantalizing mystery of all: not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.”

The book is at its best when examining “who he was.”  It is less persuasive when asserting “where he would have led us,” if only because the latter requires that the reader believe more in the agency possessed by charismatic leaders than in the limitations imposed by context.  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., once characterized JFK as a realist disguised as a romantic (Bobby, he said, was a romantic disguised as a realist).  JFK avoided fights he wasn’t sure he could win.  While that fundamental character trait might have helped to reinforce his reluctance to get more deeply involved in Vietnam, it also would have restrained his willingness to spend political capital on politically explosive issues such as civil rights. Read more ..

Film Review

The World's End: A Not-Funny Cartoon

September 18th 2013

The World's End. Director: Edgar Wright. Starring: Paddy Considine, Rosamund Pike, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman. Length: 90 mins.

At one point in The World’s End, Steven Prince (Paddy Considine), aged approximately 40, finally gets around to declaring his love for his high school crush, Sam Chamberlain (Rosamund Pike). Why didn’t he say anything before? she asks him. "I don’t know," he replies. "It just never seemed like the right time." This was one joke the audience didn’t laugh at, or not at the showing I attended, anyway. But it wasn’t altogether clear that the director, Edgar Wright, and his co-screenwriter Simon Pegg, knew it was a joke either. Oh, they must have had a sense of it. In this, as in the two previous installments of what the pair call their "Cornetto trilogy," Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, there are plenty of jokes about the contemporary male’s reluctance to grow up, as true in Britain as it is in America. But all three are in one degree or another ambivalent about this state of arrested development: on one level ridiculing it while on another defiantly celebrating it.

Welcome to satire, post-modern style. Recognizing that just playing around with different junk movie genres (zombie flicks in Shaun, policiers in Hot Fuzz, apocalyptic s-f here), which tend to self-parody anyway, is not enough to give their own movie a satirical direction, they introduce some big thinking in a late confrontation between Mr Pegg’s alcoholic hero, Gary King, and the "Big Lamp" who stands in for the leader of the "Blanks" or replicants who have taken the place, Invasion of the Body Snatchers style, of the good citizens of Newton Haven, England.

 As in Body Snatchers the replicants are all passionless, obedient citizens who stand for the sort of conformity and good behavior that the authors believe to be somehow inhuman. When the big lamp, voiced by Bill Nighy, tells Gary that their mission here has been undertaken because "Earth is the least civilized planet in the whole galaxy," he replies that "It’s a human right to be f***-ups. . . We are the human race, and we don’t like being told what to do." Read more ..

Book Review

American Umpire: Often Better Than No Ump At All

September 17th 2013

American Umpire

American Umpire. Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman. Harvard University Press. 2013. 448 pp.

What role should America play on the world stage? What has been its exact role historically? Is our current position in the world a break from tradition—or a continuum? Is America a force for good—or is our international involvement the source of many of the world’s problems?

In American Umpire, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman offers a sweeping, wide-ranging, and remarkably in-depth overview of the history of American foreign relations. In a work bound to inspire fierce debate, Hoffman, the Dwight E. Stanford Professor of American Foreign Relations at San Diego State University and a National Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues that those that criticize America’s role in the world have it all wrong: “One of the most commonly held scholarly assumptions of our day—that the United States is a kind of empire—is not simply improbable but false” (5). Above all, critics do not understand America’s history

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 started a process whereby “the world of monarchies and empires disappeared” (3), a trend that continued to the 1991 breakup of the U.S.S.R. The birth of the United States “was the pivot of this worldwide transformation,” because of what it symbolized (3). To Hoffman, the accelerating trend towards democratic capitalism has been shaped by “access to opportunity, arbitration of disputes, and transparency in government and business” (6). Hoffman has an optimistic tone throughout; she writes that the second half of the past century “witnessed greater global economic development than any other period” in human history (11). Democratic capitalism, she argues, “brought down the world order known as empire” (12). Hoffman also asserts that “1898 to 1946 was the one and only period in which the United States sustained an Empire” (13). Read more ..

The Edge of Music

Blue Man Group Reinvents Itself Through Classical, World Music

September 13th 2013


They are blue.  They are bald.  They are the iconic stars of Blue Man Group. Since their first show in New York more than 20 years ago, they have traveled the world, and millions of people have seen the blue men in action - beating on drums and each other, creating music and comedy.  Now the performers - in black unitards, their hands and faced painted bright blue - are on stage with an orchestra and musicians from other countries. 

More than 25 million people around the world have seen Blue Man Group...but never like this...on a stage, performing an entire show with a full orchestra. Kate Evans, who has seen the original show, brought her family to see the new one. “Loved the different combinations of music and the different instruments they brought in the fact that they stepped back a little bit and let other people shine was wonderful too," said Evans.

Around the world, from Asia to Europe, North America to South America, Blue Man Group presents a multimedia experience with a blend of percussion, rock and roll, world music - and the bald, blue men are the stars.  All in black, the blue men play music, but don’t speak. It doesn't matter to the audience - their actions create plenty of physical comedy that transcends words.   Read more ..

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